In introducing the concept of development, attention was drawn to the fact that the slow imperceptible expansion in social productive capacity ultimately amounted to a qualitative difference, with the arrival at the new stage sometimes being announced by social violence. It can be said that most African societies had not reached a new stage that was markedly different from communalism, and hence the use in this study of the cautious term, ‘transitional’. It can also be noted that nowhere had there been any internal social revolutions. The latter have taken place in European and world history only where class consciousness led to the massive intervention of people’s wills within the otherwise involuntary socio-economic process. Such observations help to situate African development up to the 15th century at a level that was below mature class-ridden feudalism.
It should also be re-iterated that slavery as a mode of production was not present in any African society, although some slaves were to be found where the decomposition of communal equality had gone furthest. This is an outstanding feature illustrating the autonomy of the African path within the, broader framework of universal advance. One of the paradoxes in studying this early period of African history is that it cannot be fully comprehended without first deepening our knowledge of the world at large, and yet the true picture of the complexities of the development of man and society can only be drawn after intensive study of the long neglected African continent. There is no escaping the use of comparisons as an aid to clarity; and indeed the parallels have been narrowly restricted to Europe when they could also be provided by examples from Asian history. Therein lies the cultural imperialism which makes it easier for the European-educated African to recall names like the (French) Capetians and the (Prussian) Hohenzollerns rather than the Vietnamese dynasties of Id and Tran for the latter are either unknown to him, or would be considered unimportant if known, or might even be judged too difficult to pronounce!
Several historians of Africa have pointed out that after surveying the developed areas of the continent in the 15th century and those within Europe at the same date, the difference between the two was in no way to Africa’s discredit. Indeed, the first Europeans to reach West and East Africa by sea were the ones who indicated that in most respects African development was comparable to that which they knew. To take but one example, when the Dutch visited the city of Benin they described it thus:
The town seems to be very great. When you enter into it, you go into a great broad street, not paved, which seems to be seven or eight times broader than the Warmoes street in Amsterdam....
The king’s palace is a collection of buildings which occupy as much space as the town of Harlem, and which is enclosed with walls. There are numerous apartments for the Prince’s ministers and fine galleries, most of which are as big as those on the Exchange at Amsterdam. They are supported by wooden pillars encased with copper, where their victories are depicted, and which are carefully kept very clean.
The town is composed of thirty main streets, very straight and 120 feet wide, apart from an infinity of small intersecting streets. The houses are close to one another, arranged in good order. These people are in no way inferior to the Dutch as regards cleanliness; they wash and scrub their houses so well that they are polished and shining like a looking-glass.
Yet, it would be self delusion to imagine that all things are exactly equal in Benin and in Holland. European society was already more aggressive, more expansionist and more dynamic in producing new forms. The dynamism within Europe was contained within the merchant and manufacturing class. In the galleries of the exchange at Amsterdam sat Dutch burghers — the ancestors of the modern bourgeoisie of industry and finance. This class in 15th century Europe was able to push the feudal landowners forward or aside. They began to discard conservatism and to create the intellectual climate in which change was seen as desirable. A spirit of innovation arose in technology and transformation of the mode of production was quickened. When Europe and Africa established close relations through trade, there was therefore already a slight edge in Europe’s favour — an edge representing the difference between a fledgling capitalist society and one that was still emerging from communalism.
Brief Guide to Reading
Studies on early African history are lacking for many reasons, the most obvious being that African history was for a long time considered by the colonialists as having so little value that it was not worth reconstructing. Another decisive factor is that studies of Africa were mainly carried out by European bourgeois anthropologists, whose philosophical outlook on ‘primitive societies’ caused them to separate African society from its historical context. There was a concentration on micro-units and no reference to overall patterns. The new African scholarship has been under way for too short a time to have provided any significant breakthrough. The few books cited below are part of the new approach.
B. Davidson, Africa in History.
Henri Labouret, Africa before the White Man
M. Shinnie, Ancient African Kingdoms.
M. Panikkar, The Serpent and the Crescent.
The above group of books are assessments by non-Africans from a sympathetic perspective and with sufficient value for them to be respected and widely used inside Africa. M. Panikkar is an unusual example of an Asian scholar with a professional interest in the African continent.
J. Ajayi and I. Espie (editors), A Thousand Years of West African History.
B. A. Ogot and J. A. Kieran (editors), Zamani, a Survey of East African History.
African historians have begun to provide syntheses of the continent’s history by putting together relevant collections — usually on some section of the continent, as in the two examples above. Unfortunately, the quality varies from one selection to another, and African writers have not as yet provided any coherent overview of the regions with which the are supposedly dealing.
G. Afolabi Ojo, Yoruba Culture, a Geographical Analysis.
B. M. Fagan, Southern Africa during the Iron Age.
What these two dissimilar books have in common is an awareness of the material environment. Afolabi Ojo is a Nigerian geographer and B. M. Fagan is an English archaeologist.
Table of Contents
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Walter Rodney 1973
Chapter Three. Africa’s Contribution to European Capitalist Development — the Pre-Colonial Period
‘British trade is a magnificent superstructure of American commerce and naval power on an African foundation.’Malachi Postlethwayt,
‘The African Trade, the Great Pillar and Support of the British Plantation Trade in North America, 1745.’
‘If you were to lose each year more than 200 million livres that you now get from your colonies; if you had not the exclusive trade with your colonies lo feed your manufactures, lo maintain your navy, lo keep your agriculture going, lo repay for your imports, lo provide for your luxury needs, lo advantageously balance your trade with Europe and Asia, then I say it clearly, the kingdom would be irretrievably lost.’
Bishop Maury (of France) : Argument against France’s ending the slave trade and giving freedom to its slave colonies. Presented in the French National Assembly, 1791.
3.1 How Europe Became the Dominant Section of a World-wide Trade System
Because of the superficiality of many of the approaches to ‘underdevelopment’, and because of resulting misconceptions, it is necessary to re-emphasise that development and underdevelopment are not only comparative terms, but that they also have a dialectical relationship one to the other: that is to say, the two help produce each other by interaction. Western Europe and Africa had a relationship which ensured the transfer of wealth from Africa to Europe. The transfer was possible only after trade became truly international; and that takes one back to the late 15th century when Africa and Europe were drawn into common relations for the first time — along with Asia and the Americas. The developed and underdeveloped parts of the present capitalist section of the world have been in continuous contact four and a half centuries. The contention here is that over that period Africa helped to develop Western Europe in the same proportion as Western Europe helped to underdevelop Africa.
The first significant thing about the internationalisation of tradein the 15th century was that Europeans took the initiativeand went to other parts of the world. No Chinese boats reached Europe, and if any African canoes reached the Americas (as is sometimes maintained) they did not establish two-way links. What was called international trade was nothing but the extension overseas of European interests. The strategy behind international trade and the production that supported it was firmly in European hands, and specifically, in the hands of the sea-going nations from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. They owned and directed the great majority of the world’s sea-going vessels, and they controlled the financing of the trade between four continents. Africans ,a little clue as to the tri-continental links between Africa, Europe and the Americas. Europe had a monopoly of knowledge about the international exchange system seen as a whole, for Western Europe was the only sector capable of viewing the system as a whole.
Europeans used the superiority of their ships and cannon to gain control of al] the world’s waterways, starting with the western Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast of North Africa. From 1415, when the Portuguese captured Ceuta near Gibraltar, they maintained the offensive against the Maghreb. Within the next sixty years, they seized ports such as Arzila, El-Ksar-es-Seghir and Tangier, and fortified them. By the second half of the 15th century, the Portuguese controlled the Atlantic coast of Morocco and used its economic and strategic advantages to prepare for further navigations which eventually carried their ships round the Cape of Good Hope in 1495. After reaching the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese sought with some success to replace Arabs as the merchants who tied East Africa to India and the rest of Asia. the 17th and 18th centuries, the Portuguese carried most of the East African ivory which was marketed in India; while Indian cloth and beads were sold in East and West Africa by the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French. The same applied to cowry shells from the East Indies. Therefore, by control of the seas, Europe took the first steps towards transforming the several parts of Africa and Asia into economic satellites.
When the Portuguese and the Spanish were still in command of a major sector of world trade in the first half of the seventeenth century, they engaged in buying cotton cloth in India to exchange for slaves in Africa to mine gold in Central and South America. Part of the gold in the Americas would then be used to purchase spices and silks from the Far East. The concept of metropole and dependency automatically came into existence when parts of Africa were caught up in the web of international commerce. On the one hand, there were the European countries who decided on the role to be played by the African economy; and on the other hand, Africa formed an extension to the European capitalist market. As far as foreign trade was concerned, Africa was dependent on what Europeans were prepared to buy and sell.
Europe exported to Africa goods which were already being produced and used in Europe itself — Dutch linen, Spanish iron, English pewter, Portuguese wines, French brandy, Venetian glass beads, German muskets, etc. Europeans were also able to unload on the African continent goods which had become unsaleable in Europe. Thus, items like old sheets, cast-off uniforms, technologically outdated firearms, and lots of odds and ends found guaranteed markets in Africa. Africans slowly became aware of the possibility of demanding and obtaining better imported goods, and pressure was exerted on the captains of European ships; but the overall range of trade goods which left the European ports of Hamburg, Copenhagen and Liverpool was determined almost exclusively by the pattern of production and consumption within Europe.
From the beginning, Europe assumed the power to make decisions within the international trading system. An excellent illustration of that is the fact that the so-called international law which governed the conduct of nations on the high seas was nothing else but European law. Africans did not participate in its making, and in many instances African people were simply the victims, for the law recognised them only as transportable merchandise. If the African slave was thrown overboard at sea, the only legal problem that arose was whether or not the slave-ship could claim compensation from the insurers! Above all, European decision-making power was exercised in selecting what Africa should export — in accordance with European. needs.
The ships of the Portuguese gave the search for gold the highest priority, partly on the basis of well-known information that West African gold reached Europe across the Sahara and partly on the basis of guesswork. The Portuguese were successful in obtaining gold in parts of West Africa and in eastern Central Africa; and it was the ‘Gold Coast’ which attracted the greatest attention from Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries. The number of forts built there was proof to that effect, and the nations involved included the Scandinavians and the Prussians (Germans) apart from other colonial stalwarts like the British, Dutch and Portuguese.
Europeans were anxious to acquire gold in Africa because there was a pressing need for gold coin within the growing capitalist money economy. Since gold was limited to very small areas of Africa as far as Europeans were then aware, the principal export was human beings. Only in a very few places at given times was the export of another commodity of equal or greater importance. For instance, in the Senegal there was gum, in Sierra Leone camwood, and in Mozambique ivory. However, even after taking those things into account, one can say that Europe allocated to Africa the role of supplier of human captives to be used as slaves in various parts of the world.
When Europeans reached the Americas, they recognised its enormous potential in gold and silver and tropical produce. But that potential could not be made a reality without adequate labour supplies. The indigenous Indian population could not withstand new European diseases such as small-pox, nor could they bear the organised toil of slave plantations and slave mines, having barely emerged from the hunting stage. That is why in islands like Cuba and Hispaniola, the local Indian population was virtually wiped out by the white invaders. At the same time, Europe itself had a very small population and could not afford to release the labour required to tap the wealth of the Americas. Therefore, they turned to the nearest continent, Africa, which incidentally had a population accustomed to settled agriculture and disciplined labour in many spheres. Those were the objective conditions lying behind the start of the European slave trade, and those are the reasons why the capitalist class in Europe used their control of international trade to ensure that Africa specialised in exporting captives.
Obviously, if Europe could tell Africans what to export that was an expression of European power. However, it would be a mistake to believe that it was an overwhelming military power. Europeans found it impossible to conquer Africans during the early centuries of trade, except in isolated spots on the coast. European power resided in their system of production which was at a somewhat higher level than Africa’s at that time. European society was leaving feudalism and was moving towards capitalism; African society was then entering a phase comparable to feudalism.
The fact that Europe was the first part of the world to move from feudalism towards capitalism gave Europeans a headstart over humanity elsewhere in the scientific understanding of the universe, the making of tools and the efficient organisation of labour. European technical superiority did not apply to all aspects of production, but the advantage which they possessed in a few key areas proved decisive. For example, African canoes on the river Nile and the Senegal coast were of a high standard, but the relevant sphere of operations was the ocean, where European ships could take command. West Africans had developed metal casting to a fine artistic perfection in many parts of Nigeria, but when it came to the meeting with Europe beautiful bronzes were far less relevant than the crudest cannon. African wooden utensils were sometimes works of great beauty, but Europe produced pots and pans that had many practical advantages. Literacy, organisational experience, and the capacity to produce on an ever-expanding scale also counted in the European favour.
European manufactures in the early years of trade with Africa were often of poor quality, but they were of new varieties and were found attractive. Estaban Montejo, an African who ran away from a Cuban slave plantation in the 19th century, recalled that his people were enticed into slavery by the colour red. He said:
It was the scarlet which did for the Africans; both the kings and the rest surrendered without a struggle. When the kings saw that the whites were taking out these scarlet handkerchiefs as if they were waving, they told the blacks, ‘Go on then, go and get a scarlet handkerchief’, and the blacks were so excited 6y the scarlet they ran down lo the ships like sheep and there they were captured.
That version by one of the victims of slavery is very poetic. What it means is that some African rulers found European goods sufficiently desirable to hand over captives which they had taken in warfare. Soon, war began to be fought between one community and another for the sole purpose of getting prisoners for sale to Europeans, and even inside a given community a ruler might be tempted to exploit his own subjects and capture them for sale. A chain reaction was started by European demand for slaves (and only slaves) and by their offer of consumer goods — this process being connected with divisions within African society.
It is often said for the colonial period that vertical political divisions in Africa made conquest easy. This is even more true of the way that Africa succumbed to the slave trade. National unification was a product of mature feudalism and of capitalism. Inside of Europe, there were far fewer political divisions than in Africa where communalism meant political fragmentation with the family as the nucleus, and there were only a few states that had real territorial solidity. Furthermore, when one European nation challenged another to obtain captives from an African ruler, Europe benefitted from whichever of the two nations won the conflict. Any European trader could arrive on the coast of West Africa and exploit the political differences which he found there. For example, in the small territory that the Portuguese later claimed as Guinea-Bissau, there were more than a dozen ethnic groups. It was so easy to set one off against another that Europeans called it a ‘slave trader’s paradise’.
Although class divisions were not pronounced in African society, they too contributed to the case with which Europe imposed itself commercially on large parts of the African continent. The rulers had a certain status and authority, and when bamboozled by European goods they began to use that position to raid outside their societies as well as to exploit a internally by victimizing some of their own subjects. In the simplest of societies where there were no kings, it proved impossible for Europeans to strike up the alliance which was necessary to carry on a trade in captives on the coast. In those societies with ruling groups, the association with Europeans was easily established; and afterwards Europe hardened the existing internal class divisions and created new ones.
In effect, particular aspects of African society became weaknesses when Europeans arrived as representatives of a different phase of development. And yet the subjugation of the African economy through slave trade was a slow process at the outset, and in some instances African opposition or disinterest had to be overcome. In the Congo, the slave trade did not get under way without grave doubts and opposition from the king of the state of Kongo at the beginning of the 16th century. He asked for masons, priests, clerks, physicians, etc.; but instead he was overwhelmed by slave ships sent from Portugal, and a vicious trade was opened up by playing off one part of the Kongo Kingdom against another. The king of the Kongo had conceived of possibilities of mutually beneficial interchange between his people and the European state, but the latter forced him to specialise in the export of human cargo. It is also interesting to note that while the Oba (king) of Benin was willing to sell a few female captives, it took a great deal of persuasion and pressure from Europeans to get him to sell male African prisoners of war, who would otherwise have been brought into the ranks of Benin society.
Once trade in slaves had been started in any given part of Africa, it soon became clear that it was beyond the capacity of any single African state to change the situation. In Angola, the Portuguese employed an unusual number of their own troops and tried to seize political power from Africans. The Angolan state of Matamba on the river Kwango was founded around 1630 as a direct reaction against the Portuguese. With Queen Nzinga at its head, Matamba tried to co-ordinate resistance against the Portuguese in Angola. However, Portugal gained the upper hand in 1648, and this left Matamba isolated. Matamba could not forever stand aside. So long as it opposed trade with the Portuguese, it was an object of hostility from neighbouring African states which had compromised with Europeans and slave trading. So in 1656 queen Nzinga resumed business with the Portuguese — a major concession to the decision-making role of Europeans within the Angolan economy.
Another example of African resistance during the course of the slave trade comes from the Baga people in what is now the Republic of Guinea. The Baga lived in small states, and about 1720 one of their leaders (Tomba by name) aimed at securing an alliance to stop the slave traffic. He was defeated by local European resident-traders, mulattoes and other slave-trading Africans. It is not difficult to understand why Europeans should have taken immediate steps to see that Tomba and his Baga followers did not opt out of the role allocated to them by Europe. A parallel which presents itself is the manner in which Europeans got together to wage the ‘Opium War’ against China in the 19th century to ensure that Western capitalists would make profit while the Chinese were turned into dope addicts.
Of course, it is only as a last resort that the capitalist metropoles need to use armed force to ensure the pursuit of favourable policies in the dependent areas. Normally, economic weapons are sufficient. In the 1720s, Dahomey opposed European slave traders, and was deprived of European imports — some of which had become necessary by that time. Agaja Trudo, Dahomey’s greatest king, appreciated that European demand for slaves and the pursuit of slaving in and around Dahomey was in conflict with Dahomey’s development. Between 1724 and 1726, he looted and burnt European forts and slave camps; and he reduced the trade from the ‘Slave Coast’ to a mere trickle, by blocking the paths leading to sources of supply in the interior. European salve dealers were very bitter, and they tried to sponsor some African collaborators against Agaja Trudo. They failed to unseat him or to crush the Dahomian state, but in turn Agaja failed to persuade them to develop new lines of economic activity, such as local plantation agriculture; and, being anxious to acquire firearms and cowries through the Europeans, he had to agree to the resumption of slave trading in 1730.
After 1730, Dahomian slaving was placed under royal control and was much more restricted than previously. Yet, the failure of this determined effort demonstrated that a single African state at that time could not emancipate itself from European control. The small size of African states and the numerous political divisions made it so much easier for Europe to make the decisions as to Africa’s role in world production and trade.
Many guilty consciences have been created by the slave trade. Europeans know that they carried on the slave trade, and Africans are aware that the trade would have been impossible if certain Africans did not co-operate with the slave ships. To case their guilty conscience, Europeans try to throw the major responsibility for the slave trade on to the Africans. One European author of a book on the slave trade (appropriately entitled Sins of Our Fathers) explained how many other white people urged him to state that the trade was the responsibility of African chiefs, and that Europeans merely turned up to buy the captives — as though without European demand there would have been captives sitting on the beach by the millions! Issues such as those are not the principal concern of this study, but they can be correctly approached only after understanding that Europe became the centre of a world-wide system and that it was European capitalism which set slavery and the Atlantic slave trade in motion.
The trade in human beings from Africa was a response to external factors. At first, the labour was needed in Portugal, Spain and in Atlantic islands such as Sâo Tome, Cape Verde and the Canaries; then came the period when the Greater Antilles and the Spanish American mainland needed replacements for the Indians who were victims of genocide ; and then the demands of Caribbean and mainland plantation societies had to be met. The records show direct connections between levels of exports from Africa and European demand for slave labour in some part of the American plantation economy. When the Dutch took Pernambuco in Brazil in 1634, the Director of the Dutch West Indian Company immediately informed their agents on the ‘Gold Coast’ that they were to take the necessary steps to pursue the trade in slaves on the adjacent coast east of the Volta — thus creating for that area the infamous name of the ‘Slave Coast.’ When the British West Indian islands took to growing sugar cane, the Gambia was one of the first places to respond. Examples of this kind of external control can be instanced right up to the end of the trade, and this embraces Eastern Africa also, since European markets in the Indian Ocean islands became important in the 18th and 19th centuries, and since demand in places like Brazil caused Mozambicans to be shipped round the Cape of Good Hope.